The hyper sexualized female portrayals in films and television shows are notorious for pigeonholing gender groups as well as dehumanizing women. Celebrated screenwriter and producer Joss Whedon has been working to break down gender stereotypes to paint women in a stronger light. He is noted as “one of the most forward thinking show creators and writers currently wielding his craft today.” When asked the famous question: “Why do you write these strong female characters?” and brilliantly responded with, “because you’re still asking me that question” is a testament to how strong female characters not driven by trying to get the attention of a man needs to be more normalized.
Kellsie Brannan, a junior at the University of Denver sounded off on the importance of challenging gender norms by giving male characters ‘feminine’ traits, and female characters ‘masculine’ traits to help this issue. “I think it’s important for the media to explore the idea that gender is not a binary. Traits don’t necessarily need to be assigned a gender, and by pushing the gender binary we can obtain a more complex understanding of gender, which is beneficial for everyone. By releasing traits from their feminine or masculine coding, we can take the pressure off of ourselves to behave in certain ways in order to conform to our assigned or chosen gender, which is a much more healthy way to approach identity. For example, if the media challenges the idea that women are bad at STEM by creating various engaging, interesting female characters in the STEM field, or the idea that men shouldn’t be emotional by creating various engaging, interesting male characters who express their emotions in healthy ways during struggles (AKA not violence), these behaviors may become more normalized and accepted in society.”
On the other side of the coin, fellow junior at DU, Isaiah Thompson thinks, “that it isn’t so much about creating male characters with feminine traits or female characters with masculine traits because that becomes problematic in its intent. Rather, the idea is to create characters that show a diverse array of traits and gender identities so as not to reinforce gender stereotypes, and then in time, these stereotypes may also fade away with their portrayals. That to me would be the ultimate goal.”
DU History Professor and teacher of the Feminism and Buffy freshman seminar Jodie Kreider discussed what it was about Joss Wheton’s show, Buffy the Vampire Slyer, that ignited strong changes in society that previous shows couldn’t accomplish. “Whedon had a different take on why he was making the series, with a different kind of network. So from the beginning it was in a relatively safe place for him to challenge representations and explore themes, over long arcs. The use of season long Arcs and extended storylines is one reason why it had such an impact, as the characters could change over a season and throughout the series. Charlie’s Angels and other shows were one-hour self-contained episodes with no connections. The characters changed only by getting new actors…. Buffy also included excellent writing, challenging uses of language, humor, and by crossing genres, allowed it to address various important issues without seeming to preach to anyone.”
Kreider also agreed that since Buffy, “female leads have become more three dimensional than they used to be. There are more of them, and their role as leads usually includes other aspects than just their looks or their domestic skills. They are usually verbally skilled, as Buffy was. There is an increasing number of shows featuring female leads that use physical fighting and kicking ass to show they are ‘strong female characters.’”
One of the biggest concerns over how female leads are played is that it will compartmentalize children into feeling guilty over not living up to media standards. Kellsie Brannan reminisced about this very topic saying “I had a very short haircut, glasses, and loved Pokemon in grade school. Because I didn’t fit the norm of the cute little girl in a dress and pigtails who was more interested in traditionally “girly” things, I had a hard time making friends and was teased often. Portrayals of young girls in the media, especially in media aimed at young girls, is very limited in it’s representation of what girlhood is like and how girlyness should be expressed, which I’m sure contributed to the “otherness” other kids saw in me.”
Kellsie also enjoyed the PowerPuff Girls, which was also celebrated over the strong portrayal of the female leads. “I loved it because they were always portrayed as powerful, which is not something that young girls are often portrayed as. I also always like Miyazaki movies, because females were almost always the main characters and the plot seldom revolved around romance. Girls my age were often more into boys than I was when I was young (being “boy-crazy” is a very feminine-coded behavior in young girls), so plots that revolved around falling in love didn’t especially appeal to me. I was more into adventures, which was more of a “boy” thing, but seeing these girls go on adventures that revolved around themselves was nice.”
It is debated that media portrayals of gender has a great affect on young people. Younger people, especially children, are looking for people to emulate and tell them what is correct and incorrect in society. Especially in school, “fitting in” in some way is so crucial to having friends, and the media offers a venue to understand what “normalcy” is. Therefore, the gender norms portrayed in the media are seen as what is “normal” and becomes a standard.
Some disagree with this stance, Isaiah thinks that “it does to a somewhat lesser or greater degree depending on the volume of content an individual watches and also their mental commitment to the things they are watching. That [being] said, it definitely influences children when they are still developing their ideas of societal norms and behaviors.”
Going forward, Kellsie thinks, “The current climate surround women’s portrayal in the media is improving, but we still have a long way to go. Men still have the overwhelming amount of speaking roles in media and women are often overtly objectified. The problem, in my opinion, is the need for more complex roles for women. So often women are stuck in apiece as the girlfriend or wife or femme fatale or whatever, which is often all that their identity as a character revolves around. Women characters shouldn’t be able to be defined by a few solitary adjectives as the entire summation of their character. Women can be sexy and strong and independent and still be two-dimensional characters, or not be any of those things and be a very complex, interesting character. It all lies in the respect that is given to the character and if she is treated as a person and not a cardboard cutout.”
It is amazing that Wheton has been able to help create milestones for women in media. Isaiah remembers an interview with Wheton where he “said something along the lines that he never intended for any of his films or projects to be milestones for feminism in media, he simply grew up in a family full of strong women, and so he wrote what he knows, and if that happens to be strong women with depth of character, that is because that’s what exists in the real world.”
On of Isaiah’s favorite Wheton characters is Penny from Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, saying that he liked her “characterization” and that she was “brilliantly developed because even though she did display a need for companionship and relationship, she wasn’t absolutely overwhelmed by it like you will see in many stereotypical female portrayals. She has other things on her mind that occupy most of her time such as helping the homeless and trying to make the world a better place. Obviously, it is a bit difficult to completely separate her from her desire for romance because the movie is a romance, but everybody feels that same tug on [his or her] heartstrings every now and again, and without that element she would be a robot. That is the real key, finding the balance between giving them a motivation, and not making that their only motivation.”
Kellsie enjoyed Whedons characterization of Buffy, sayig that she “[loved] the very premise of a little blonde girl who turns around and kills the monster that followed her into an ally, and it certainly hadn’t been done before the advent of her character. [she] also loved that she is able to be strong and tough and physically imposing while choosing not to giving up her classically “feminine” traits. I[she also believes that] feminist and feminine don’t have to be mutually exclusive, [and] Buffy is a great example of this. She has traits on both extreme ends of the gender “spectrum”, and yet Whedon managed to make her into a very complex and three dimensional character who is strong, vulnerable, smart, naive, self-sacrificing, selfish at times and everything in between, just like a real person.”
Many people think the media has a responsibility to show a variety of genders with a spectrum of shared roles to help normalize feminine qualities being shown in men as well as normalize masculine traits shown in women. Agreed with this sentiment saying that “continuing to produce media that simply reinforces this gender binary is not just blandly wrong, but actively harmful to society. The purpose of the media is to tell stories, and it is the work of a negligent storyteller to tell the same stories over and over again.”
Isaiah however somewhat disagreed, “the media should be a reflection of society. To quote a cliché, a mirror to hold to it. So, if we have a fair and equal representation of this spectra of gender and sexuality in the general population, than we should see this same diversity in our films. It should be up to the filmmakers to accurately depict the world as they see it, and then if we see an issue where there are discrepancies, then maybe we should address them outside the film industry rather than within. Of course this is incredibly idealistic and relies on the film makers being true to what they see and not producing creations distorted by a lens of hegemonic masculinity. There are of course also exceptions to this rule; situations in which the inaccurate portrayal is used as satire or hyperbole to make a point about something that they believe needs to be changed in our world. But I digress.”